On CNN Friday morning, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who Trump had cited earlier in the week, heard that and reacted incredulously.
“She said that?” Cruz said. After hearing the clip, she said:
Well, maybe from where she’s standing it’s a good news story. When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from their buildings—I’m sorry, but that really upsets me and frustrates me. I would ask her to come down here and visit the towns and then make as statement like that, which frankly, it is an irresponsible statement and it contrasts with the statements of support that I have been getting since yesterday when I got that call from the White House. Dammit, this is not a good news story! This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story. This is a there’s-a truckload-of-stuff-that-cannot-be-taken-to-people story. This a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water.
It’s a reality of disasters that, as former FEMA Director James Lee Witt put it to me earlier this week, “If you’re one of the victims, every hour and every day is too long.” There are real obstacles that make it difficult to distribute aid around Puerto Rico. Roads are destroyed, gas stations are dry, the power grid is down, and telecommunications infrastructure is out of service. Even as the port of San Juan fills up with containers, people outside of the capital city can’t get basic supplies. These are not problems that the federal government, or anyone else, can fix instantaneously.
Yet even granting the difficulty, the Trump administration’s insistence that Maria recovery is a success feels tone-deaf—adding insult to injury for Puerto Ricans who can’t eat or find clean water.
Part of this seems to be Trump’s struggle to project empathy, which he displayed in the early days after Hurricane Harvey, where he excelled at the inspirational, rah-rah, we will rebuild aspects of presidential response, but found it very hard to show he felt the pain of Gulf Coast residents. (By contrast, he has expressed caution about what to do in Puerto Rico, tweeting, “The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!”) Another part is Trump’s tendency toward puffery: In all situations, for his entire career, his impulse has been to magnify and celebrate his own prowess and success, and so he’s doing that here too. But that fake-it-till-you-make-it approach understandably rankles people like Yulín.
In service of his self-celebratory project, Trump has enlisted Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, willingly or not. Over and over, Trump has noted Rosselló’s gratitude. But the governor is in a difficult situation. He knows that he is largely dependent on Washington in both the immediate and long-term aftermath of the storm. Even as he has thanked Trump profusely, Rosselló has also repeatedly begged for the federal government to do more.